I Am Responsible

I hopped on my bike and headed for the Star Tribune circulation office across town. I was 11 years old and delivered the Morning Tribune six days a week and had a separate route for the Sunday Tribune. I was a good paperboy: I got myself up every day and finished my route on time. I didn’t miss customers. I did my door-to-door collections and paid my bills promptly. But I had spent too much money that week, and I didn’t have enough to pay my bill in full. I wasn’t too concerned: my dad was the boss and the new guy wouldn’t say anything to me, I thought.

A line of carriers formed behind the wide counter in the small office. Behind the counter were desks for my dad and the new manager he had hired recently. Benches lined the walls in the outer area. We had sales meetings at the office and the benches would be filled with carriers—all young boys.

I got to the front of the line and emptied my money bag of bills and coins onto the counter. Don Iverson was the new manager. He was a big guy. My dad had told me that he had been a Navy frogman. He counted out my money and said, “You are short.” “I don’t have the money,” I replied.

His voice boomed and his fist slammed into the counter, “We pay our bills in full! Don’t you ever be short again!”

In the 59 years since that Saturday morning, I’ve never paid a bill late.

As I reflect back over my formative years from the vantage point of 70 years, I am grateful for those adults, like Don Iverson, who used tough love (high standards plus compassion) to guide me in the right direction.

I think of the teachers who held me accountable for my immaturity by sending me to the principal’s office, to sit in the hallway and who used a paddle and a swat on the rear end to get student’s attention.

I think of the basketball coach who kicked me off the team for breaking training rules. The juvenile court judge who threatened me with a juvenile detention facility and a few police officers who made me tell my parents of misbehavior.

I am most grateful to my parents.

As I look back over my childhood, I can see a pattern in how my parents raised me: They never rescued me from my mistakes. They didn’t swear or holler at me. I was never spanked by mom or dad. But they made me face my mistakes. And they stood with me when I faced punishment.

All of those adults in my life taught me that I was responsible and accountable for the choices in my life. I learned that the quality of my decisions would determine the kind of life I created for myself.

Like most of us, I had unexpected setbacks in my adult life. Each time life threw a difficulty my way, I overcame it and made my life and myself better than before. I was able to do that, in large part, because the adults in my life as a youngster taught me that no one would rescue me: I was responsible for my life.

 

Accountability: Rare in Organizations

The employee delivered newspapers full-time. He tried to organize the other adult employee carriers into a union. I managed the region the man worked in and spearheaded the effort to defeat the union. We won at great cost to the company.

After the vote, I continued to document the man’s chronically poor performance. I knew the company would not fire him absent extreme provocation. The lawyers feared he would claim retaliation—as if attacking our motives was evidence–and sue the company if they held him accountable with documented facts. I continued to document his performance issues because it was the right thing to do.

Can we do what is right and win cases too? I believe we can. Disciplined employees can challenge our facts and attack our motives but evidence and documentation speak for themselves. I was never sued or lost an arbitration because I did professional work correctly.

I was promoted and encouraged the employee’s direct supervisor to continue to document the man’s performance issues. I told him the company would not let him fire the man but if he got a massive amount of documentation, I would go with him and empty the box of memos and letters on the desk of the company general counsel.

About two years later, we did exactly that. We walked into the general counsel’s office with a cardboard box filled with written warnings. I turned the box over on his desk and dumped out a hundred or more written reprimands. We embarrassed him. The general counsel allowed us to fire the man, which was done with no repercussions.

I believe many of the best employees, at all levels, burn-out and leave organizations because they can’t use their values and power to effect right changes, including discipline. And the bad employees stay forever–a cancer on the organization.

Organizations are mostly mediocre; leaders and employees often middling or less. But some of us try to lead from our values and be excellent in what we do. We believe in holding people accountable for their performance via a fair process that gives employees a chance to change. Too often our efforts and good work get frustrated by higher-ups and attorneys terrified of being sued or complained about.

Whatever happened to standing up for ideals—win or lose? At least once in a while in especially egregious cases.

I left the newspaper and spent 13 years as a consultant. I tried to teach leaders how to lead transformation of their organizations. I focused on employee engagement, empowerment and involvement as key strategies. I also believed in a tough-love approach and taught managers how to hold people accountable. Many began–few followed through. They feared conflict and they feared they would not be supported by higher-management.

In a workshop I led on giving feedback, a manager asked what patterns I saw that cut across all organizations. That was easy: “the lack of accountability,” I said. I saw but one organization over those years that routinely held people accountable for their behavior and performance.

I retired from consulting after 13 years. I had tried every day with every client to influence leaders, managers and supervisors to use their power to bring about changes good for employees, executives, customers and the organization and changes that had huge positive impacts on the bottom-line. Accountability was one of many core issues I asked them to deal with.

Leaders professed to want “great organizations” but most lacked the right stuff needed to lead organizations from mediocrity to greatness—including accountability. They wanted quick-fixes—easy, quick, cheap and painless–and imagined magical changes in people. With rare exception, after realizing that real transformation required hard work, most stuck with mediocrity.

I still encourage people with power to do what they can to hold the mediocre, dishonest, immature and those who drain the life from others accountable. It’s the right thing to do. Just don’t expect any certain outcome for your efforts from timid decision-makers. What you do matters even if it doesn’t seem that way. Who knows, maybe someday you can dump your own box of documentation on the desk of an anxious lawyer or executives and embarrass them into action.

A Voice in the Wilderness

I’d consulted with a major Midwestern power company for a while, when a leader in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (I.B.E.W.) said to me, “You are a voice in the wilderness.”

At the time, I didn’t think of myself as a voice in the wilderness or an advocate for some obscure theory. I focused my work—based on my real-life experiences–and attention on transformation and the leadership necessary to bring forth such difficult change in organizations. There was dire need for such renewal: few organizations achieved excellence and fewer yet could sustain distinction once realized.

I was fresh from my 18 year career at the Star Tribune newspaper where, in my last position, I had led a successful transformational change effort in a large business unit. When we began, I thought of how much I would be able to change the enterprise. But I was probably changed the most. My eyes were opened to the vast untapped human potential available to those who learned to think differently about leading groups of people. I left the company to complete a Ph.D. in leadership and organizational change and to share what I’d learned with leaders.

I tried to teach the leaders of the power company how to free their employee’s potential by inviting workers to get involved and to create conditions where each person could feel valued, involved, and informed—alien ideas in a mechanistic system. I wanted leaders to embrace tough love, lead from their values and humanize the huge enterprise. I believed the leaders would leap at the chance to improve the bottom line in dramatic fashion and reduce the time, energy and vast expense of constant conflict and litigation with the union represented employees.

I was mistaken.

The personal growth the leaders must make to lead such change felt too scary for them. I found the same in other organizations. Leaders wanted change; they didn’t want to do the hard work of change. My personal goal changed from “change the world” to “do what I can.”

I made each job an effort to plant the seeds of organizational enlightenment: those moments of metanoia that changed the inner person. Over 13 years I met a handful of leaders who understood and embraced the insights. But most could not summon or sustain the courage and commitment to undertake their own transformations and to confront angry and painful resistant to deep change.

After 13 years, tired and in need of renewal myself, I retired.

I never thought that calling on people to embrace the humanity of others would be a voice in the wilderness. The wily veteran of the I.B.E.W. was right.

We need many voices with moral courage to call out in the humanistic wastelands of our organizations and institutions.

More so today than ever before.